Wednesday, September 30, 2009


According to a Newsweek reviewer cited on the back cover of Breaking the Spell, Dennett and Sam Harris are both writing "bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as pernicious and outdated superstitions". Bone-rattling? Surely Dennett blushed. Maybe he had no control over blurbs; or maybe he just went along because nowadays, strident sells. But in fact Dennett is quite different from the other Three Guys. All three are doing a full-court press on the opposition. They flat-out deny God and denounce religion. Dennett takes a different tack. He will examine religion scientifically.

If not necessarily objectively. He makes no bones about where his principles (and his presuppositions) come from (well, I guess that's better than pretending to be unbiased when you're not). Early in the book he self-identifies as a "bright". Even Christopher Hitchens, to his credit, had his yuck-factor triggered by what he described as the "cringe-making proposal that atheists should conceitedly" (his terms) call themselves "brights". I couldn't agree more. Once again, there's this social tone-deafness that's so common among atheists (I wonder how many are Asperger's cases). Plus the smugness that sent P.Z. Myers and the rest of the Pharyngula bunch ape-shit when some Christian blogger called them on it (it was laughable to see how many of them totally misunderstood what the "smugness" accusation was about).

But that's by the way. More importantly, Dennett has practically defined his quest out of relevance by pages 10-11. There, he takes issue with William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience focused on the dealings of individuals with whatever they "consider(ed) the divine". Dennett, on the other hand, defines religion as "a larger social system or community". And he decides to go with that because "there are reasons for trading in James's psychological microscope for a wide-angle biological and social telescope" (ibid.) He neglects to tell us what those reasons are.

He would have been wiser to survey things from James's perspective as well as from his own. Both are valid; either one without the other does not begin to embrace the whole phenomenon of religion. Using either one on its own ignores one of the most basic characteristics of religion: its Janus-facedness. Individual religion can be (isn't always!) something pure and noble; social religion can be (and often is) repressive, destructive, even actively evil. It is precisely this tension between the Jamesian side and the Dennettian side that has to be investigated if we are ever to understand religion, and I hope to go into this a lot more deeply in future posts.

For now I'll just note the absence, not just from Dennett's work but from that of all four Guys, of virtually any reference to the Via Negativa, mystics, or mysticism. One would have thought that the mere term "mysticism" would have raised atheist hackles, with its false connotations of "mystification" and consequent identification as that hobgoblin of "freethinkers" since the Enlightenment: "Superstition!" One would have thought they'd mistake it for an easy target. Were they really smart enough to see it isn't? Or were they just so ignorant of what they were writing about that they had never heard of these things, or didn't understand them?

I say "virtually" because there is one reference in BtS to the "apophatic" (p. 232). Kudos (NOT, please, in the plural!) to Dennett for dredging up this rare word. It's one of those "blind-'em-with-science" terms of art that theologians use to make their work look more heavy-duty intellectual than it really is. But all Dennett does with it is have fun with some wannabe-postmodern claims by a straw-man "Professor Faith".

I'm sorry. Unless you know what mystics are, what they do, and why they do it, you are ignoring what for many is the very core of religion. But enough of that for now. Let's see how well Dennett does with those mainly public aspects of religion that he does investigate.

Well, again the issues are narrowed and prejudged, and this in a way that I've had occasion to complain about in my day job. I'm talking about the singular-plural distinction. Professionally, I encounter this in dealing with people who play fast and loose with the distinction, using "language" and "languages" alternately and indiscriminately, saying things like "language is still evolving" when it's clear they mean "languages are constantly changing."

Dennett performs this trick with religion/religions: "But it is obviously false that RELIGION is natural in this sense [i.e. not a product of culture, DB] . RELIGIONS are transmitted culturally, through language and symbolism, not through the genes" (p. 24, my emphasis).

It may be worthwhile to compare religion/religions with language/languages. Languages are particular instantiations of a general faculty, language. Likewise, religions are particular instantiations of religion. Religions and languages are culturally transmitted, but language is deeply rooted in human biology. Is religion too, maybe?

Dennett, under the influence of a heavy dose of evo-psych, has to hedge his bets here. Religions may be cultural, but whatever's cultural must be reclaimed for science somehow, so in his chapter entitled "The Roots of Religion" he opts for the source of religion(s) in the abuse of perfectly natural evolutionary mechanisms. We meet, for the zillionth time, "the intentional stance" , followed by HADD, the Hyperactive Agent Detection Device (previously detected only in a five-page article in a cognitive science journal) and guess what, language, so we can spin endless webs of words around our HADDS and our intentional stances, convincing ourselves of all manner of nonsense. And of course in addition to that...

What? You surely can't mean THAT'S ALL THERE IS?

Sorry, folks, that's all he wrote. To get a "folk religion" going--and you can learn, of course, from any nineteenth-century musings on "savage tribes" that when you've met one folk religion, you've met 'em all--it seems you don't need much. All you need is a need to identify other organisms that might have intentions different from yours, a preference for false positives over false negatives (if you mistake a boulder for a leopard, nothing really bad happens; vice versa, you could be supper), and the gift of the gab to make up explanations for anything you can't immediately explain.

This image of the poor pre-human schmuck, cowering at the trembling of a leaf, wondering if the devil's in it, and inventing a whole slew of supernatural entities to explain things is so insufferably patronizing (not to mention old-fashioned) that you feel like dumping Dennett in the bush (that's "the jungle" to you tenderfeet) and seeing how long he'd survive. Seriously, any preliterate tribesperson has a more sophisticated understanding of the natural world than your C21urbanite, and if that's the case now, why should our ancestors, who had an even tougher life, have been any dumber? Just as patronizing is the evo-psych obsession with the hangovers from our ape days that lurk unchanged in the depths of our psyche and, hidden from all but the likes of Dennett, determine all we do. Or, as he himself puts it in one of those Dennett-for-Dummies summaries that end each chapter, "The false alarms generated by our overactive disposition to look for agents...are the irritant around which the pearls of religion grow" (pp. 114-5).

Nice image, but like the HADD itself, right off the top of Dennett's head, with no empirical foundation whatsoever. Unless--could it be?--he actually wants to give us an example of the kind of magical thinking he's describing?

Dan has an earned reputation as a jokester, which of course is what makes him more fun to read than most philosophers. But the Dennett of BtS is far from the relentless trawler along the cutting edges of computing and cognitive science, dragging up pearls (if I may borrow his metaphor) with which to revive shopworn philosophical controversies, that we used to know and love. This is Dennett in full armchair mode, a very different kettle of fish.

So, having exposed religion's sorry roots, he's onto what keeps the bush so vigorously growing. And it's...(roll of drums while Dan opens the blue envelope)...guess what? Cui bono!

Yes. To Dennett, the ultimate mantra is: ASK NOT WHAT I CAN DO FOR MY FAITH; ASK WHAT MY FAITH CAN DO FOR ME.

But that deserves another post.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


I just came across this, so I'm posting it, partly because it seems to me to nicely encapsulate what a lot of fundamentally decent people feel (although I don't wholly share those feelings) and partly because it makes a couple of good points that are very relevant to this whole debate:

In your book, you write about your faith. How do you feel about religion, and particularly Christianity, being attacked by militant atheists?

It does make you think you ought to stand up and be counted, but I'm not remotely evangelical. It has been a great comfort to me and is a strong part of my life, but it's rather like trying to explain to somebody who doesn't speak Italian how wonderful that language is. It's up to them to find out, and if it doesn't suit them that's fine. But I feel saddened that faith is so often assumed to be coupled with a lack of intellect. It's sexy to be an atheist; it's not hugely sexy to have a faith, certainly the Christian faith.

Are you wary of being labelled a "Christian"?

Yes. Because I suppose I don't want to be one of those earnest, rather boring people who say, "I'm a Christian!" It's a complex issue really, but I do believe quite deeply, quite profoundly.

Alan Titchmarsh, interviewed by The Guardian, 09/24/09

Take #1. "It's sexy to be an atheist; it's not hugely sexy to have a faith, certainly the Christian faith."

This opens up a whole can of worms about why people have the ideas they have. Do they have them because they really believe in them, or because they think those ideas enhance their image? Well, I guess a few cynical people do consciously and deliberately choose ideas for the second reason. But for every one that does, there are dozens, hundreds, who do it quite unconsciously. If they knew what they were doing, the probably wouldn't. It's often regarded as dirty pool, looking at why people think what they think rather than sticking to what they think and debating that on an intellectual level. But let's do it anyway--let's expose them.

Why is it sexy to be an atheist? Well, it's still a bit daring, like the first time you used the f-word in front of your parents. Just like teen rebellion, it makes you feel decisive and important and more interesting than all the old fuddy-duds. After all, it's only recently that the faith that dare not speak its name became the faith that won't shut up. Once you've got past that, you can strike heroic poses with it. Try JUST ME ALONE BEFORE A HOSTILE UNIVERSE (we have the Subnietzschean model for a cool $29.95). Or what about THE PENETRATING MIND THAT SEES THROUGH ALL THAT OLD CRAP? Both in their different ways guaranteed to make you feel good the way a good faith should. And after all, if there's no God then we're the tops, the cream of creation, the highest form of being in the universe. Like most revolutionaries (there are honorable exceptions), atheists want to become what they seek to overthrow.

And on the other side, there's the unsexiness of believing a bunch of stuff that's been around a couple of thousand years. No, there's no contest on the sexiness front.

Or #2. "One of those earnest, rather boring people who say, 'I'm a Christian!'"

Again, it's worth noting that this kind of Christian is just like our New Atheists. Both are socially tone-deaf. Both suffer severely from LJHS*. The source of this is ego. These people love themselves more than others, they haven't any real feeling for how other people feel but that doesn't matter because they are right and other people are wrong. This of course is why you can't simply write off Christianity (for all its faults and weaknesses) because true Christianity (as compared with the shoddy imitations that nowadays mostly pass for it) must include sensitivity towards others and would never seek to proselytize unless sure that this would be welcomed by their hearers.

In passing, but not without some relevance to the above:

Christian jokes are lame

NPR jokes are lame

I've never heard an atheist joke

*Remember Little Jack Horner? Well, his Syndrome is neatly encapsulated in the nursery rhyme: "He stuck in his thumb /and pulled out a plum / and said 'What a good boy am I!" (Atheist version of the LJHS" "What a clever boy am I!")

Friday, September 18, 2009


On p. 142, Dawkins quotes co-conspirator Dennett as pointing out that "evolution counters one of the oldest ideas we have: 'the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing.'"

When I read this, I couldn't believe my eyes. Hadn't Dawkins, just a moment before, said the very reverse of this? I looked back, and there it was, on p. 136: "A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity, because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right."

What gives here? I thought for a moment, well, Dawkins is talking about a designer God, and God 2.0 is not a designer. Then I thought, well, isn't He? What's design anyway? To design something doesn't necessarily mean that you have to sit down at a drawing-board and draw diagrams, then go to Home Depot, buy the parts and put them together. All you have to do is whatever it takes to get the thing into existence. How do believers in Genesis 1 think God created Adam? With his thumb? Or did He just say to the handful of dust, "Be a man"? Ridiculous questions that serve merely to highlight the fact that, if God does exist and creates things, we don't have a clue as to how He might go about it. So Dawkins' designation of "designer" should fit just about anything that satisfies his description of a God.

But if that's so--and Dawkins is surely too smart to get caught in this kind of trap, so I still have a niggling feeling I must have missed something, somewhere--then Dawkins has contradicted himself. If God simply set things up so that evolution took place, how does that make Him necessarily complex? Evolution did the complex stuff for him--like making us--and evolution is, as Dawkins points out, a "stunningly simple" thing. Living organisms multiply, they vary in their capacities, some individual organisms have capacities that better suit (or exploit) the current environment, those organisms tend to have more offspring than others, so the useful capacities spread through the population, and bingo! You've got evolution. Can't get much simpler than that.

Dawkins ought to have argued that God had to be complex to start evolution. I've no idea how he'd have done that. Part of the problem is that, although Dawkins is, or should be, a materialistic monist, he won't cop to it, or at least hasn't--so far.

Because, as I pointed out in the previous post, claims about complexity can only relate to entities whose degree of complexity can be observed and measured. And those entities are material entities. If there are entities that have no material existence, we have no way of knowing whether they are simple or complex, or indeed whether simple or complex would have any meaning, with reference to them.

And of course there are entities that have no material existence. Dawkins uses them every day, every hour, possibly every waking minute of his life.

Many years ago, I received in the mail the inaugural lecture of a professor who had just been appointed to some distinguished chair (of inorganic chemistry, or whatever, I can't remember except that his field was about as remote as it could be from mine). I've no idea why it was sent to me, surely by some bizarre mistake. But I couldn't fail to notice that he cited approvingly Lucretius's dictum: "Nothing exists but atoms and the void."

I wrote back thanking the professor, but asked him what he thought the words "atoms and the void" consisted of. Unsurprisingly, he never answered.

Well, what do they consist of? Take any word, the first word that occurs to you--just now, with me, it happened to be "badger". The word refers to a rather charming animal, nocturnal and striped, but it certainly isn't the animal. In fact, even its meaning is highly flexible. "To badger someone" can mean to pester them with repeated questioning or unwanted advice. "The badger game" is a criminal strategy whereby the victim is enticed into having sex with a woman, and during the act a man claiming to be her husband bursts in on them and demands money. So does the word "badger" perhaps consist of marks on a printed page? Or the oscillations of the air caused when "badger" is uttered? Or is it perhaps the neuron, or more probably cohort of neurons, that represents the word in the speaker's brain? Or is it all of the above, in which case how can the same thing be in three places at the same time?

Obviously it can't, and equally obviously, I would have thought, it's none of the above. "Badger" is not necessarily immortal--if all the brains that had retained it were dust, if all the pages on which it was written had crumbled away, if all perturbations of the air caused by its utterance had long been stilled, it would no longer exist (as, for all we know, God might not survive the death of His universe). But there's no question that as long as any of those external manifestations exists, the word "badger" will continue to exist, and it will not in any sense be a material thing.

Same goes, of course, for all the concepts that underlie words, and all the idea that ever existed, whether or not they were expressed. We are the creators of non-material entities. And what's more, those entities aren't just passive phantoms. They are causative agents in the real world. They build philosophies, religions, science itself. They are, directly or indirectly, responsible for practically everything we do.

Are there any non-material entities that we haven't created? We don't know, but why shouldn't there be? Supposing there were, would they be simple or complex? We couldn't tell. Are words simple or complex? Their meanings may be complex, or their structures may be complex, but these manifestations of words have no necessary interconnection--words with a simple structure may have a complex meaning, or vice versa. And they are, in any case, manifestations--not the word itself. At the very least we can say that however we choose to judge immaterial things with regard to complexity, that judgment cannot be the simple process it is for material things. And if every aspect of our lives is governed by immaterial entities, why should the universe itself not be governed by just such an entity? "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God." I've no idea what this means (in common with all the biblical commentators who are, however, less honest about it) but, as they used to say in the old country, it makes you think.

Please note, I am not using this argument as an argument for God's existence. My aim is much more modest. I want to show that Dawkins' arguments for God's non-existence don't go through, consequently the possible existence of God must remain a hypothesis alongside His possible non-existence. Can probabilities be assigned to either? That's another question, one I'd rather not deal with right now.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Harris and Hitchens never stopped long enough to define just what they meant by God. You had to guess; most of the time it looked like Yahweh (red in tooth and claw) was meant. Dawkins is more careful--"I am talking only about supernatural gods" (p. 41), although in the next breath he claims that "the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament." Really? Not the Christian God of love and redemption? And the vast majority of his readers, he admits, will be Christians. Why would they be more familiar with the God of the Judaic scriptures than the God of the New Testament?

(Here's a can of worms indeed, the varied contents of which we'll come back to again and again, DV, in these pages.)

Could Dawkins' choice have anything to do with the fact that Yahweh is a more vulnerable target? Let that pass for now. In the next chapter he clarifies what he means by a supernatural god: "a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us" (p. 52). He doesn't define supernatural. You're supposed to know what it means. For most people, the following equations hold:

natural = what I can understand

supernatural = what I can't understand

Naturally (pun unintended), the advance of science has tended to move one thing after another out of the second category and into the first. Is that process one of infinite reach, so that eventually the second will be totally empty? Dawkins, along with many other scientists, would like to think so. We'll see.

Indeed Dawkins (in contrast to many others of no mean weight yet very different approaches, T.H. Huxley and the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing for two) explicitly states that the existence of God is ultimately provable or disprovable by the exercise of human reason. In fact, he believes (p. 73) that we can already weigh the probability of God (and find it close to zero). He distinguishes seven points on a spectrum of probability, from the 100% of the "strong theist" to the 0% of the "strong atheist" (p. 74). However, there's a problem here if we think back to the definition of "God" on p. 52.

Dawkins is well aware of the difference between theism and deism. But his definition fails to distinguish between the kind of hands-on God who follows us as individuals, rewards believers with eternal life, answers (or at least hears) prayers, works miracles, and all that kind of stuff, and the hidden, mysterious God who created a universe that would eventually spawn intelligent life, for whatever reasons He may have in mind. Clearly the balance of probabilities is very different, depending on whether you are talking about the first kind of God or the second. Dawkins seems to be running probabilities on the first, so what he might take them to be for God 2.0 remains a mystery.

One thing he is adamant on, though, and it's this: people can't hide in the kind of wishy-washy agnosticism that says that since we can't calculate a firm probability either way, we should say the chances of God/no-God are fifty-fifty. Not so, says Dawkins, because if you propose the existence of anything that cannot be empirically proven, the burden of proof is not on skeptics to disprove it, but on you to prove it.

And, on and off through the rest of the book, he repeatedly lines God up with other things that have been (or might be) proposed on the basis of no empirical evidence: Bertrand Russell's earth-orbiting teapot, the tooth fairy, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and more.

This is bizarre, understandable only in light of one gambit of the New Atheists--to weaken religion by trivializing it, in the same way that picadors weaken the bull so it's less able to avoid the matador's killing stroke. One potent way of trivializing is the same as one way of imputing guilt--by association. Associate God and religion with things like fairies and imaginary tea-pots and you're already half-way to slaying the beasts; at worst you've cut them down to size in people's mind. But such associations, just like "guilt by association", are ridiculous. Nothing turns on the truly imaginary things that Dawkins adduces. Whether or not there are tooth fairies, whether or not there is an imaginary teapot between here and Venus makes not a smidgen of difference to the world or how we think about the world. But whether or not there is a God makes an enormous difference.

Of course, orbiting teapots, fairies with or without teeth, and Spaghetti Monsters flying or otherwise, are all things the probability of which is so low that nobody in his right mind would bother to assess them. However, there is one thing they have in common that they don't share with God. If they existed at all, they would be physical entities in the real world. But God, if he exists, is not. God, as the anonymous president of a New Jersey historical society (quoted in my last post) along with every sensible Christian for centuries, has said: God is a spirit. (In the fourth and fifth centuries there actually were people called Anthropomorphites who not only believed that God was a bearded old man in the sky but were ready to kill those who rejected the notion, but the Church eventually squelched that one.)

Does this make any difference? Yes, as we shall see, it makes quite a lot of difference. Let's start with the question already touched on--whether it is possible, in any meaningful sense, to assess the probability or otherwise of God's existence.

Dawkins thinks it is. Quite apart from the probability scale already mentioned, he considers that with respect to intelligent life on other planets, one can "make a sober assessment of what we would need to know in order to estimate the probability" (p. 95). He adduces the Drake Equation

N = R^{\ast} \times f_p \times n_e \times f_{\ell} \times f_i \times f_c \times L \!

created in 1960 by astronomer Frank Drake, where N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy in which communication might be possible and R* is the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy, fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets, ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets, and so on. Dawkins points out that though the numbers to be assigned to each term in the equation are still subject to vast margins of error, some of them have narrowed in the last half-century. For instance, in 1960, the notion that any other star might have planets was pure conjecture, but now we have spectrographic evidence for the existence of several hundred planets, while more (and smaller, potentially more life-friendly ones) continue to be discovered. This, Dawkins claims, should slightly reduce our skepticism about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. In the same way, "science can make at least probabilistic inroads into the territory of agnosticism" (p. 96--don't forget that agnostics just as much as fundamentalists are in Dawkins' crosshairs--"He who is not for me is against me" is, as we have seen, a canon in the atheist creed.)

But if N were God, what would the terms of the equation be? Dawkins pours scorn on Stephen Unwin (pp. 132-6) whose book The Probability of God uses Bayesian analysis (a formula slightly different from the Drake Equation, but broadly similar in its aims and results). The scorn is not wholly unmerited. Unwin feeds in figures that are purely subjective guesses for such parameters as the existence of evil or the validity of miracles and even then only comes up with a 67% likelihood for God's existence (which, according to Dawkins, he then ups to 95% by adding his equivalent of the "cosmological constant" Einstein used to make his equation come out right--"faith"!) Obviously, Dawkins and Unwin would assign very different values to the presumed validity of miracles; Bayes' Theorem works when the input consists of objectively valid information, otherwise it's a mental placebo for the distressing fact that there are many things we don't know, and some we can't.

In the final analysis, Dawkins takes neither Drake's nor Bayes's route. He bases his judgment on a single improbability: "A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity [the complexity of, say, humans, DB] because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right" (p. 136). Well, how did humans get to be so complex? By natural selection, of course; according to Dawkins, or me if it comes to that, evolution by natural selection is the only way you can progress from simple to complex physical organisms. Dawkins is ready to accept the possibility of godlike aliens who evolved on some other planet (p. 99). They too would be physical organisms. But suppose God is NOT a physical organism? I mean, no sensible person I know of ever suggested He would be. Is there natural selection for spirits? If so, what environments select for different kinds of spirit? (Without variation there's nothing for natural selection to work on.)

Such questions are absurd, of course. Dawkins could easily circumvent them by simply saying, the universe consists entirely of physical organisms and material objects. After all, philosophical dualism is rejected by most scientists, even, nowadays, by most philosophers. So Dawkins could simply win his case by adopting materialistic monism, a healthy tradition from Democritus on. Why doesn't he?

I don't know. But in any case, he's wise not to, as I'll show in my next post. For now, just let's say that Dawkin's killer argument would kill God only if God were a physical organism produced by natural selection, which no-one has ever suggested He was. If He is indeed a spirit, then we have no way of knowing how simple or how complex He would have to be to do whatever it may turn out He does. If He's there.

It is however possible to estimate roughly how complex God would have to be if we consider different possible versions of God. If God indeed produced humans, down to their brain-wiring and internal plumbing, from a handful of dust--like a watchmaker makes a watch--then yes, I guess He'd have to be pretty complex. If on the other hand He simply set the parameters of the Universe so that eventually, something like us--something capable of comprehending the idea of God--would be bound to turn up somewhere, then there's just no way of computing how simple or how complex He would have to be. And if God worked through evolution, as many pretty-orthodox Christians believe, He would not have to be complex at all, on Dawkins' very own assumptions.

Which assumptions a? I'll tell you next time. Nothing like a cliff-hanger to get folks' attention.